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May Swenson

I live in a nation that has three year olds becoming life time members of the NRA, and anti-bullying seminars that force a draconian language of the politically correct so technical and nit-picky as to be a form of bullying in its own right. Guns to the right of me! Jargon to the left of me! All volley and hold the thunder (after all, thunder may be perceived as a semiotic indicator of male patriarchy). I look at my daughter and say: “I’m so sorry, but I wanted you to exist.

Into this vale of tears, I have introduced a magician giant who lifts the vale and give me moments of clarity and peace–he’s the friendly giant of old poems I can return to, the Giant who goes “presto!” and behind the vale of NRA nut jobs, and academic jargon spouters, there appears my mother’s favorite Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite poems by Theodore Roethke, a couple of poets whose names will never be on the lips of microbrew swilling grad students: Walter De Lamare, Robert Francis, May Swenson, JV Cunningham, Kenneth Patchen, Carolyn Kizer. Sometimes I return to them by picking up the books, and sometimes by the faulty yet passionate vehicle of memory: I remember lines or whole poems, or the time of day and the quality of light when I first read the poems. A jet plane scratches its autograph across a blue Saturday afternoon spent down by the railroad tracks, reading where no one would bother me. I forget current poets then (I don’t always like poets. They sometimes wear capes and sweep into rooms and piss me off). I forget that I became a poet and remember that I am a reader of poems–not a poet. To be a reader of poems is still a lovely thing–a better thing. There is little ego involved in it compared to being a poet. It makes me forget the borderline sociopathy of English department brag fests–kudos to Henry, hype for Margie, and blah, blah, blah. Some working class anger in me denies the idea of “major poet.” I don’t believe in them. I believe in major poems.

Long before Centos became a fad, long before I knew what a Cento was, I was dicing and splicing in my mind as I walked to school or rode my bike, or drove my first car. I used to play like this:

Winter uses all the blues there are,
yet the wet sides of stones can not console her
She runs out of the sea, shaking her long green hair,
runs from the bleached valleys under the rose
this maimed darling,this skitterry pigeon.

It would be a paratactic (one short line after the other) recall of lines or mish-mash from poets I had been reading. In this case, A poem “Winter uses all the Blues there are” by Francis, a paraphrase, of Elegy for Jane, a splicing of Joyce’s I hear An Army with Olson’s The Lonely and Isolate Satyrs.” It’s what I did for pleasure or distraction, or the pleasures of distraction.

I never wanted to express myself in a poem; Fuck the self. Of all the things I know, the self is most fraudulent. I wanted to express the light on bricks at dusk, a certain ghost presence on a wintry day, the eyes of someone peering at me over a broken down fence, characters I made up, most of all–the haunting veracity of presence: what it is that is there in the world, but you do not know exactly–that haunted and haunting energy we might call the felt-life.

I’ve failed miserably to accomplish any of these goals. Whatever MFA programs teach poets to be, I pretty much don’t get. I blame myself–not the MFA programs. I am pretty stupid. All I ever had to go on was the faulty ardor of someone who liked the soundings and whisperings of things. Poetry now seems military to me. “Careers” are plotted out. Magazines march out their contests and fees and winners. Awards are given to the usual suspects. Most poets aren’t poets–they’re A students, a whole different species of excellence. They achieve. Whenever I hear the ghastly shriekings of “Achievement,” I recall Auden’s concept of “Achieving your corpse.” That puts it in perspective.

Today, when I woke up, I wanted to see a construction site. I wanted to pick up a clod of turned over dirt and throw it at the ghost of my own childhood–whack my ten year old self in the back of the head with a dirt bomb–the way my big brother used to do. I wanted to look at the crane and bulldozers sleeping in the early morning frost, glistening with their bright reds and yellows. I didn’t wanted to be young again. I never wanted to be young. I desired the power of a shape shifter. I wanted to be the milkweed pods on the verge of the site, and the point of merging where the crane’s neck met the sky–but all of it as consciousness, dizzy and reeling with consciousness. I wanted neither return nor recompence, but the presence of a thing made out of words.” It’s a strange courage/you give me ancient star/ shine alone in the sunrise/ toward which you lend no part.” I wanted that. Three year olds are being taught to shoot guns and confuse them with manhood. On the other side of the absurdity, words like globalization and transdisciplinary studies, are wrenching the arms off poetry. The poets have meetings and win awards, and sail passed their lesser brothers and sisters like Williams’ yachts. Who will sit with me at the table of our sins and breathe his word? What poetry will be found in the ears when I die? Who will make me forget how much I fear for my child who is asleep in the kitchen as I write. On flows the river/ A hundred miles or more/ other little children/ shall bring my boat ashore. I sure as hell hope so.

Carolyn Kizer’s poetry pleases me in many of the same ways May Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Alice Fulton please me: enormous intelligence and observation as a form of passion, as deep engagement with the thing made out of words. She is not interested in using the natural world to enter realms of spiritual transport. There is no fuzziness, no maudlin sense of the “sublime” clinging to her observation. This is her poem on seeing a Great Blue Heron. It is also a powerful tribute to her mother. She has an even better one on seeing a bat, and in that poem, her mother also figures as a partner in the event, but I would hope a reader enjoys this poem and goes hunting for the bat. Unlike Mary Oliver, she would never declare “you do not have to be good.” Her Heron, unlike Oliver’s goose is no excuse for a life lesson. Awe, and wonder, and the singularity of being visited by grace in the experience are certainly there, but without even the dimmest echoes of the self help/new age. Instead, Kizer trusts the precision of her observation will draw forth the ecstacy that true attention to any living thing incites. This is a great object poem–up there with Rilke’s “Panther” and “Gazelle,” and Bishop’s “Moose,” and John Clare’s bird poems. Perhaps there are two strains of nature poetry running through Western traditions: one is nature as maxim, nature as contemplativeand the other is nature as manifestation–invocation. The first is based on wisdom, on nature as an instruction, a moral/spiritual force. The second strain is nature poetry as a sort of unknowing, a returning of the thing to its unprecedented singularity. Both approaches are equally valid, but it is far easier to write the inspirational nature poem than it is to keep a controlled and keen eye trained on serving the actual presense of what is seen. Bishop’s “Moose” and Kizer’s “Great Blue Heron” head more in that direction. This, I believe, is the more difficult poem to write. One must actually see the bird, and accurately render it. One cannot “use” the bird as a theme, as a lesson, but must enter into its “just so-ness.” Such poems are marvels of both invention and attention. Kizer succeeds to the highest degree. She should be read far more than she is.

The Great Blue Heron

M.A.K., September 1880-September 1955

As I wandered on the beach
I saw the heron standing
Sunk in the tattered wings
He wore as a hunchback’s coat.
Shadow without a shadow,
Hung on invisible wires
From the top of a canvas day,
What scissors cut him out?
Superimposed on a poster
Of summer by the strand
Of a long-decayed resort,
Poised in the dusty light
Some fifteen summers ago;
I wondered, an empty child,
“Heron, whose ghost are you?”

I stood on the beach alone,
In the sudden chill of the burned.
My thought raced up the path.
Pursuing it, I ran
To my mother in the house.
And led her to the scene.
The spectral bird was gone.
But her quick eye saw him drifting
Over the highest pines
On vast, unmoving wings.
Could they be those ashen things,
So grounded, unwieldy, ragged,
A pair of broken arms
That were not made for flight?
In the middle of my loss
I realized she knew:
My mother knew what he was.

O great blue heron, now
That the summer house has burned
So many rockets ago,
So many smokes and fires
And beach-lights and water-glow
Reflecting pinwheel and flare:
The old logs hauled away,
The pines and driftwood cleared
From that bare strip of shore
Where dozens of children play;
Now there is only you
Heavy upon my eye.
Why have you followed me here,
Heavy and far away?
You have stood there patiently
For fifteen summers and snows,
Denser than my repose,
Bleaker than any dream,
Waiting upon the day
When, like gray smoke, a vapor
Floating into the sky,
A handful of paper ashes,
My mother would drift away.

I spoke of ontology before, the significance of being that stems from a poem, but there are minor poems, small triumphs of imagery, of rhythm, or beauty that make us think: “Why am I so concerned with truth or significance? Right now, my lover is asleep, and the venetian blinds are leaving their shadow across her face, and I wish I could stay here. Fuck Tolstoy. Fuck King Lear. I want to kiss her nose.”

Well, maybe others just take everything that makes life bearable for granted, or maybe they use this moment to consider how, in sleep, a lover may as well be a tree—that there is a certain terrifying aspect to the lover unconscious and unaware of, well, of me! I’ve had girlfriends wake me up because they were lonely. Sometimes, I don’t mind, especially if we start making out again. But sometimes it annoys me. None of this will win me a Nobel prize. But what I remember about Anna is not the plight of very rich noblewomen in 1870′s Russia; I remember the moment when Count Vronski breaks his horse’s back, or when Oblonski (Steve to his friends) wakes at the beginning from a very pleasant dream (dancing decanters with pretty legs, and opera) to realize he and his wife, Dolly are on the outs because he’s been schtupping the children’s governess.

I remember the details. I also mis-remember them, an equally wonderful thing, since what we mis-remember can be so vivid. I know people who misremember whole relationships, and, once their sour husband is dead, they get weepy eyed over finding an unmatched sock of his tucked away in a drawer. We do not mis-remember concepts or attitudes, or “truths” because they are the rather rickety frame on which we dab the mud of our memories and false impressions, and make for that doomed hut we call consciousness. As a friend of mine says: “caress the details, the divine details.”

The ontology of some poems is as follows: to capture, in however full a way, the precise, oh so precise feel of pussy williow against your neck the last time you saw Vanya, who spun about, and struck the soft spring ground with a stick, and then vanished into her career, her resume, the lie of just the facts which can never, never summon forth the quickened pulse, the despair of knowing you would not see her again and that she probably married some guy who never noticed anything except that he thought he ought to. Poets remind us of the obvious, the glorious obvious that we have forgotten while we were busy “living” our “meaningful” lives.

If you write enough poems that capture such a moment, you will be considered a minor poet, but we should investigate this term minor: rather than meaning less than great, it can mean great in a small, and specific way. Consider this Robert Herrick gem:

Feign would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg
which is as white and hairless as an egg.”

In our humorless, and supposedly explicit (though not at all erotic) culture, we have lost the gift perhaps of appreciating such exquisite, and mincing desires.

I am worried. I am worried that people are out there having sex and never noticing what a leg feels like against their leg. What kind of world is that? Minor my ass. That’s the whole of the sky! It’s as important as believing in God, since God is in the details—not the maxims.

This brings me to truck out one of my old time favorite “minor” poems, “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis. Besides the five senses, there is also kinetic imagery—those combinations of words that create a certain sense of movement in a poem, that describe movement. Rilke has a great kinetic image in his poem about the gazelle (Look it up on line. It’s there, and if you can tell me what that kinetic image is, I’ll give you ten extra credit points). Francis is the greatest minor poet America produced. Donald Justice comes close, and May Swenson gives both a run for their money. And Robert Haydn ain’t no slouch, either, (Those Winter Sundays may be the best sonnet written by An American poet in the 20th century). But, poem for poem, you don’t get more perfect than Francis. His work makes me so ashamed of everything I’ve ever written. This is the best depiction of a man stealing a base ever. It is also the best use of kinetic imagery I know, And look what he does with the word, delicate, in the last line!

The Base Stealer

Poised between going on and back, pulled
both ways taut like a tightrope-walker,
finger tips pointing the opposites,
Now bouncing tip toe like a dropped ball
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on,
running a scattering of steps sideways,
How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases,
taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now!

Francis uses gerunds (ings) properly—to create suspense, to create tension. The word delicate has a certain bounce to it—a perfect sense of bounce. It sounds like its meaning: ready to burst or break. “Come on, come on” in line five gives a sense that anticipating the runner’s break for second is becoming sheer torture. You don’t have to like or even know baseball to appreciate this. If you have never seen a ball player get ready to steal, or threaten to steal, watch a video on YouTube, and you will see the triumph of kinetic accuracy this poem happens to be. And notice how he uses his T sounds! The hard T sound appears in almost every line, sometimes as the initial sound of the word (taut, tightrope, tip toe, teeters, tingles, teases, taunts) and also in medial or terminal positions (between, taut, pointing, opposites, scattering, steps, skitters, ecstatic, delicate). It’s an essay on how to use -ings, and how to thread a sound through a poem for maximum effect. It’s a minor masterpiece, and I do not use minor in a demeaning way. Literary theorists use literature as an excuse for ontological truths (or gender, or sexual, or identity issues). This is a legitimate way to ransack texts, but it will not teach you how to write. Ontology begins with detail selection—in terms of word choice, verbal relationships, rhythm. A theorist wouldn’t know what to do with this poem, unless the theorist started to write a book on kinetics in terms of verbal constructs and the cultural bias of admiring athletes as per one’s gender, or class. Minor may only mean a theorist can’t find much to theorize about. Now Herricks little couplet could be an example of the “objectification” of a woman’s body parts. But suppose we get rid of all appreciation of the body in poems… have we not turned a human being into an “idea” then—a political or theoretical entity. I don’t know. But our culture is terrified of details. All governments and religions are terrified of details, especially when they temporarily re-route or short circuit “general” ideas. Power depends on symbols we don’t really think about—on orienting us towards the automatic. There is no more revolutionary act in poetry than to see or depict something from a fresh point of view, to liberate it from the graveyard of received ideas. “Make it new,” said the early modernists. I would qualify that statement to read: “make it obvious, and better still, makes us startled by the obvious.”